Ahsan Hamid Durrani l
The standoff between Indian and Chinese armies along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh/ Aksai Chin region continues. Both countries have deployed thousands of troops in this disputed region (Indian sources estimate 5000 x Chinese troops and almost equal number of Indian troops), especially in Pangong Tso Lake and Galwan Valley. The multiple standoff points in Eastern Ladakh include:
- Pangong Tso Lake where the standoff began on 5 May 20, when skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops were reported. As per unconfirmed reports, the PLA has secured the entire area between Finger 5 and Finger 8 along the north bank of Pangong Tso, a distance of nearly 8-10 km.
- Galwan valley, where Chinese troops have moved near Shyok-Galwan River Junction to block ingress route towards LAC. As per Indian sources, PLA has physically secured 3-4 km of Indian territory along Galwan River.
- Minor skirmishes have been reported near Gogra Post ivo Hot spring (80 km SE of Galwan Valley), located between the valley and Pangong Lake, provide access to Aksai Chin through Chang Chinmin river.
- Face off near Demchok bordering southern areas of Aksai chin in proximity to Tibet-Xingiang NH 219 Highway
- Daulat Beg Oldie, a revamped advance landing ground (ALG).
Why LAC Flares Up.
India-China border is divided into three sectors, where the LAC in the western sector falls in the Indian occupied Ladakh region and is 1597 km long, the middle sector of 545 km length falls in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and 1346 km long eastern sector falls in the states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.
The middle sector is the least disputed sector, while the western sector witnesses the highest transgressions between the two sides. It is due to the fact that the border is not fully demarcated and the LAC is neither clarified nor confirmed by the two countries.
Except for the middle sector, even the mutual exchange of maps about respective perceptions of border has not taken place between India and China. This has led to different perceptions of the LAC for the two sides, and soldiers from either side try to patrol the area up to their perception of the LAC which results in transgressions.
Strategic Importance of ‘Face–Off’ Areas for China and India.
Following aspects are relevant:
- Ladakh Sub Sector North. Ladakh Sub Sector North (SSN) lies just to the East of Siachen glacier and is India’s vulnerability due to the tenuous lines of communications, notwithstanding the recently re-commissioned Daulat Beg Oldi airfield strip. From India’s standpoint this sector is the only area where physical military collusion can take place between Pakistan and China. Besides this sector provides direct access to Aksai Chin which India consider part of Ladakh. Meanwhile, Aksai Chin is vital for China to maintain its grip on Tibet through vital road link (NH 219 Highway).
- Galwan Valley. The junction of Shyok and Galwan rivers is only 5 km from the LAC. China does not want India to create defenses in the Galwan River valley to improve its access towards Aksai Chin.
- Hot Spring Area. Besides Galwan River, other approach to Aksai Chin is from the south via the Chang Chenmo River valley, at the end of which is located Indian post of Hot Springs. India has developed a road to this area along the Chang Chenmo River leading towards LAC.
- Demochok Area and NH 219 Highway. NH 219 passes through Ngari which is an important Chinese base with an airfield in the Indus Valley. It is only 50 km from Demchok and here India possess the terrain advantage. Ngari can also be threatened from Chumar which is the reason for frequent face-offs in these areas.
Possible Chinese Objectives in Ladakh Standoff.
China is extremely suspicious of India’s intention to squeeze China in collusion with the US. It believes that in the long term, India’s strategic aim is to restore the status quo ante 1950 by recovering Aksai Chin and other areas captured/secured by China. India’s alignment with the US, the presence of Tibetan government-in-exile in India, and the aggressive claims on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan — through which the prestigious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes — only strengthen China’s suspicion. Envisaged Chinese Objective at military level is perhaps “to maintain the “status quo” along the LAC on its own terms and to forestall any threat howsoever remote to Aksai Chin and NH 219.”
Distinctiveness of Ladakh Standoff.
As per most analysts, Ladakh standoff is different from earlier stand off i.e Depsang in 2013, Chumur in 2014, and Doklam in 2017 since there are some major changes from the earlier patterns as follow:
- One, Chinese troops have reportedly come in large numbers into a new area (Galwan river valley) which had not been contentious in terms of the alignment of the LAC.
- Two, these troops are staying put, dug down and in tents and not just as a short-term patrol.
- Three, these incursions are happening in multiple locations.
- Four, Chinese troops have become more assertive and aggressive in their behavior as evident by the intensity of scuffles and refusal to withdraw.
Options for India
Strategic analysts inside India are recommending two diametrically opposite approaches to end the current standoff. The first, advocated by traditionalists and by hawks, is that India should hold the line along the Himalayas and escalate the conflict if it has to. They point out that Indian troops enjoy favorable positions in many places, and their strength has been bolstered over the past 10 years with more mountain forces and better infrastructure and equipment. The objective of this approach, they contend, is to make the Chinese realize that they can’t ‘win’ this game. The second approach, generally favored by diplomats, economists and many politicians, is that India should defuse the situation through talks and negotiations, because India cannot afford tensions and adversarial relations with China ‘at this time’. Even before the ongoing coronavirus pandemic crisis, India’s development agenda required that it do not get distracted by military conflicts, not least with a more powerful neighbor, which is also an important economic partner.
Independent analysts opine that the only course of action for India is to use diplomacy to diffuse the tensions since China enjoys tactical and operational superiority in the stand-off areas.
Conclusion: Tensions at LAC this time are unlikely to move pass like previous stand off which momentarily impacted Sino-Indian ties. The current standoff is different from previous ones due to intensity of confrontations, number of troops involved and the kind of logistics/ equipment being deployed. Also, Beijing is controlling military initiative by keeping the element of surprise and diplomatic narrative which in turn facilitates a protracted standoff. It is therefore seem plausible that Chinese may not withdraw from the advanced areas being vital defense locations. India at the same cannot afford military actions due to capability mismatch and Chinese geographical advantage. Chinese plan to stay permanently in these areas will exacerbate political and military pressure on India. New Delhi has been totally surprised by Chinese actions and lacks a comprehensive strategy to counter Beijing’s moves.
 The Pangong Lake’s northern bank juts forward like a palm, and various protrusions are identified as “fingers” to demarcate territory. China refuted Indian claims stating its troops are within its own territory.
Ahsan Hamid Durrani is an Islamabad based analyst with interest in socio-political issues. The detailed version of this article has been published at Global Village Space. This version has been published here with author’s consent.